Preparing for a Biden presidency in which COVID-19 will be a top priority, the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris transition team named a board of scientists and public health experts Nov. 9 to advise the team on how to respond to the surging pandemic in the U.S.

Prior to the election, candidate Biden laid out a COVID-19 plan that called for a federally controlled response as opposed to the federally assisted, state-controlled plan President Donald Trump has followed. That could make for a bumpy transition, as states already have devised state and local distribution plans for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Some of those plans could be implemented should a vaccine become available before Inauguration Day Jan. 20.

That’s one issue the 13-member board will have to tackle, but it’s not specifically on the transition team’s list of duties for the board. That list tasks the panel with consulting with state and local officials to determine the public health and economic steps necessary to get the coronavirus under control, deliver immediate relief to working families, address ongoing racial and ethnic disparities, and safely reopen schools and businesses, according to the transition team.

“The advisory board will help shape my approach to managing the surge in reported infections; ensuring vaccines are safe, effective, and distributed efficiently, equitably, and free; and protecting at-risk populations,” Biden said in announcing the new board.

The advisory group will be led by co-chairs David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; Vivek Murthy, who served as surgeon general under President Barack Obama; and Marcella Nunez-Smith, the associate dean for health equity research at the Yale School of Medicine.

As for the rest of the roster, one name that stands out is that of Rick Bright, who became a Health and Human Services (HHS) whistleblower after he was removed in April as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority where he was helping with vaccine research.

Bright was reassigned to the NIH to help with the development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms – a move he characterized as a demotion that was retaliation for his going above the heads of HHS officials to sound the alarm about the millions of vials, syringes and other supplies that would be needed for a nationwide COVID-19 vaccine program.

Bright resigned from the NIH position last month and filed a new charge at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel alleging that he was constructively discharged based on the failure of the agency to assign him meaningful work.

Other members of the COVID-19 advisory board include academics, experts in infectious diseases and individuals who served in public health positions under previous presidents.

Pandemic plan

The board’s work will align with Biden’s seven-point plan to rein in the pandemic. That plan starts with testing – doubling the number of drive-through testing sites, investing in next-generation testing, standing up a pandemic testing board and establishing a Public Health Services Job Corps of at least 100,000 Americans to conduct contact tracing of infected individuals.

The plan also calls for the effective, equitable distribution of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. To do that, Biden has proposed investing another $25 billion in a vaccine manufacturing and distribution plan to guarantee every American can get the vaccine at no cost – something the Trump administration had promised as well.

To build public confidence in the vaccines that will be approved, Biden said politics will play no role in determining a vaccine’s safety and efficacy of any vaccine. The clinical data for vaccines approved by the FDA will be publicly released and career staff will issue a written report for public review.

In addition, Biden said he will ensure that consumers are not price gouged as new drugs and therapies come to market. However, he provided no specifics on how he intends to do that.

In a step aimed at protecting older Americans and others at high risk for infection, Biden said he would establish a COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force to provide recommendations and oversight on disparities in the public health and economic response. The task force is to transition to a permanent Infectious Disease Racial Disparities Task Force when the pandemic ends.

Another part of Biden’s plan calls for rebuilding and expanding the U.S.’ defenses to predict, prevent and mitigate pandemic threats, including those coming from China. This would involve restoring the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, restoring the country’s relationship with the World Health Organization, re-launching the U.S. Agency for International Development’s pathogen-tracking program and expanding the number of disease detectives deployed by the CDC internationally, including the rebuilding of the CDC office in Beijing.

The other steps in the seven-point plan involve:

  • addressing issues with personal protective equipment (PPE) by using the Defense Production Act to ramp up production and to build toward a future, flexible American-sourced and manufactured capability;
  • developing guidance for how communities should respond to the pandemic, providing funding to prevent budget shortfalls for states and local governments and emergency funding for schools and small businesses;
  • issuing and enforcing a nationwide mask mandate.
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